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Raging Rino Gattuso has proven an inspired choice as Napoli manager

The extrovert Italian is chasing cup glory on two fronts after replacing Ancelotti in December and says his difficult early days in management helped build his coaching career

Gennaro ‘Rino’ Gattuso has always had a cute line in self-deprecation. “My players have to think they are as ugly as I am,” the Napoli manager announced to Italian reporters last week. “Just because they have been playing against Barcelona, it doesn’t mean they have turned into Brad Pitt.”

It was a quote of the sort Gattuso used to charm AC Milan audiences with when he was a player, making a habit of praising the decorative skills of those around him – footballers such as Kaka or Andrea Pirlo – while revelling in the caricature of Raging Rino, less gifted technically, the all-action worker at the service of the artists.

The truth was never so simple. Gattuso the midfielder could read a game and see a pass as readily as anybody. He just applied himself with more obvious gumption to pressing, tackling – and to eyeballing his opponents and whirling his arms about to gee up the crowd.

Some of those extrovert qualities, wisely channelled, are helpful in a manager, and when Napoli, following the departure of Carlo Ancelotti in December, appointed Gattuso they identified his heart-on-sleeve passion as a recommendation. But what Aurelio de Laurentiis, the Napoli president, also detected was a coach on the rise, a canny leader whose qualities extend well beyond rousing speeches and entertaining soundbites.

Gattuso has a playing CV that guarantees respect from players. Most in their mid-20s or older grew up watching his Milan win two Champions League titles, in 2003 and 2007, and a Gattuso-motored Italy triumph at the 2006 World Cup.

His coaching resumé, though, is chequered – at least up until now. Should Napoli hold on to – or better – the 1-0 advantage in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final against Inter Milan, due to take place on Thursday but postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, he will be 90 minutes from a first significant trophy, a tribute to his effect on a Napoli who were in crisis when he arrived.

Gattuso has never shied away from a challenge. His first job in management was chaotic, the fault mostly with his employer. He had been seeing out his playing career in Switzerland, at Sion, and by midway through his first season four managers had been sacked. He was asked to be the fifth.

He lasted 11 games before the notorious Sion president Christian Constantin – a man later banned from football for 14 months for slapping a coach in the face – sacked Gattuso, who promptly accepted a post at Palermo, a club with a record-breaking history of managerial insecurity.

Gattuso had been in Sicily four months when he became the 23rd managerial sacking in the volcanic career of then Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini, who went on to sack another 17 coaches by the time his 15-year presidency ended.

A manager with that sort of career start might be considered not so much unlucky as plain foolhardy in his choices. Gattuso’s next destination, at financially decrepit Crete in the Greek top flight, would be no calmer.

epa08268835 Operators of 'Napoli Servizi' sanitize the San Paolo stadium in Naples to prevent the dangers of contagion of Coronavirus, Naples, Italy, 04 March 2020. Officials said on 03 March that the number of Coronavirus cases in Italy, the center of Europe's COVID-19 outbreak, rose by almost 500 to 2,502 cases, and death toll hit 79. EPA/CIRO FUSCO
The Coppa Italia semi-final between Napoli and Inter Milan at the San Paolo Stadium has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. EPA

A six month stint featuring one resignation, later rescinded, and an expletive-filled press conference that became a youtube classic.

By the time Gattuso returned to Italy, and a job at third-tier Pisa, in 2015, he seemed a magnet for trouble. But Pisa enjoyed some success under Gattuso, winning promotion to Serie B in his first season before being relegated in his second.

On the basis of that record, no Serie A giant would have appointed Gattuso. But Milan did because he had been such a loved player there and his work guiding age-group teams at the club for six months had made a good impression.

He got the main job in late 2017, and at the end of his first full season in charge of a scratchy Milan squad, he had taken them to a respectable fifth place in Serie A.

He left Milan last May. Seven months later Napoli called. It looked a risky appointment for both parties. Napoli’s players were in open revolt against the president.

The first weeks were taxing, but after knocking Serie A leaders Lazio out of the Cup, momentum has gathered. Napoli have won seven of their last nine matches, including a win over champions Juventus. Last week Barcelona were held 1-1 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Gattuso still looks back on the difficult early days. “I have thought about the experiences in Sion, Palermo, Crete and Pisa,” he said. “What is happening now is reward for the sacrifices I and my staff have made.”

Updated: March 4, 2020 05:37 PM

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